good shmeats

one food-loving vegetarian taking New York City's restaurants one plate at a time.

Sunday, January 08, 2006

Tenement - Lower East Side

well, not quite.

157 Ludlow Street (between Stanton and Rivington)

My trip to Tenement - a Lower East Side restaurant and lounge - began when my friend Tyler said, “I’ll take you out to dinner - my treat if you review it.” (Thanks Tyler, and may that be inspiration to anyone who reads this blog.)

The Lower East Side is no longer the overstuffed but vibrant immigrant stomping ground it once was. The kosher butchers, clotheslines, and barefoot children crowding on fire escapes (not to mention the sweatshops) are gone. Avenue B may still be crowded, but these days its all hipsters with side parts and hangovers. And aside from the relic-turned-trendy-latenight-hotspot, Katz’s Deli (which opened in 1888), the possibility of purchasing an egg cream has dropped significantly.

I'm not overly nostalgic for a Lower East Side I never knew. Aside from reading A Bintel Brief in college, I have little personal connection to this patch of urban island history. Still, I hoped that Tenement might take the opportunity to capture some essence of the old-world Lower East Side that its namesake evokes. But except for some wrought iron and two framed photos of immigrant shop keepers, Tenement looked like any other lovely Lower East Side eating establishment, circa 2006.

Tenement's menu did attempt a few appetizers that payed homage to the Lower East Side's immigrant mix: Potato and Cheese Pierogis with Caramelized Onion, Vegetable Spring Rolls, and Fresh Mozarella and Pesto with Balsamic/Port Reduction. Tyler and I sampled the Potato Pancakes (he dared me to ask for latkes, but I demured). We heaped tart apple/pineapple sauce and chived sour cream on top of the crispy brown circles, allowing the flavors of childhood to adjust to these more sophisticated relishes. Unlike the latkes I grew up on each Chanukah - which seemed to flow miraculously from the frying pan - we had to stop with one each.

The Baked Brie Salad I had for dinner was outstanding, though hardly reminiscent of the impoverished immigrant experience. Four thick medallions of brie encased a fragrant compote of apricot and raisins. The brie sandwiches rested on a bed of pristine mesclun greens dressed in a sweet vinaigrette. Chilled butter on the cornbread muffins that came with our meal rounded out this ambrosial salad.

I talked Tyler into splitting a Banana's Foster for dessert, promising a mix of flame softened rum and caramalized sugar. Tenement paired the dish with vanilla ice cream, but we noted cinnamon ice cream written further down on the menu, and requested a swap. The cold, brown-flecked mound melted sumptuously between the delicate layers of banana. I was jealous of every bite Tyler took.

Muckracking journalist and 20th century photo-journalist of the Lower East Side Jacob Riis would not have recognized "Tenement," where Tyler and I dined - nor the surrounding neighborhood. But perhaps - like many New Yorkers who have witnessed endless neighborhood transformations - he would not be surprised either. Before leaving, I asked our waitress if the building had once been an actual tenement building. She smiled and said, "Oh, it's been lots of things."


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